by Nancy McDaniel

Many people who go to Africa for the first time refer to it as a life-changing experience. I know that I felt and said that when I first went to Kenya on safari in 1987. I suppose it is hyperbole to say that each time I go back to the continent, it changes my life. It’s actually more of a re-affirmation. As I once said, when I am in Africa, whether on safari or in a rural area with local people, I am “the best me I can be.” I don’t know why; it just always happens. It is where I am the kindest, most interested, most engaged…  and happiest.

And it just happened again. I returned from two weeks in Zambia the end of July. I still think about this trip every day. I saw a water bottle attached to a bicycle yesterday and I got tears in my eyes (more on that later).

The Reason For The Trip
I have recently become aware of and involved with a wonderful Chicago-based not-for- profit organization called World Bicycle Relief. Their mission is brilliantly simple and simply brilliant: “World Bicycle Relief is a nonprofit organization transforming individuals and their communities through The Power of Bicycles.” I was planning to go to southern Africa anyway last summer and when I saw they were offering a trip called “Africa Rides” to visit their projects in Zambia, I decided to sign up.

Before I went, I started a Grassroots Fundraising Effort for WBR. My initial goal was to raise enough money to donate 10 bikes (at $134 each) which I would match, for a goal of 20 bikes ($2680).

I promised to send photos of kids and bikes when I got back; this appeal certainly worked! Due to the generosity of friends and the powerful appeal of this organization, my total was over $10,000 (that’s 75 bright new shiny Buffalo Bikes, especially designed and built for the uncompromising rough terrain of the rural areas where they would be living)

Before I met our group in Lusaka, I visited my friend Liz in Harare, Zimbabwe for 3 days, followed by 3 days of safari at the beautiful Chongwe River Camp in Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. Those are memories to write about separately. THIS piece is about Africa Rides!

Day 1:
We arrive! We arrive in Lusaka and check in to our hotel, The Intercontinental. I knew we would not be roughing it, but this hotel was much nicer than I had expected. We had a lazy afternoon to unpack and unwind. I headed for the lovely pool where I was delighted to be surrounded by a birthday party on the lawn for the 5 year old daughter of some Australian ex-pats working for an NGO in Lusaka.

There was a Zambian version (with palm trees!) of one of those jumpy things, face painting, food, and a dip in the very chilly water of the pool for the bravest of the little boys. No photos, except those I kept in my head, but I loved their squeals and swimming in their underpants, some of them perhaps for the first time.

AND I was mesmerized by the “diversity” of the group with children and parents of all colors. Lovely to see them all getting along so well. Every time I see children of different colors and races playing so happily together, I always wish I could “bottle” that trust and unconcern and hope they keep it when they are grown. And I had my first “Mosi” of the trip. It’s odd how I am not a beer drinker at home but LOVE a cold local beer whenever I am in Africa. Just part of my transformation I guess.

That first night we had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Portico, where our group took over the whole outdoor area. Amidst warming braziers, we mingled and met everyone and enjoyed a wonderful Italian meal. There are so many interesting people on this trip; I cannot wait to get to know them better (I was a bit worried however because everyone seems so fit (and young, and thin) and I surely am not (any of those). Hope I can keep up with them all!

The mantra for the trip is “Open Hearts, Open Minds.” I love that several of the executives for World Bicycle Relief are young(ish) mid-career guys who had established a good career in corporate America and then left to work for this charismatic and fabulous NGO.

Day 2:
Remembrance. We had a tour of a remarkable Community Center called Chikumbuso. Chikumbuso, which means “remembrance” is a grassroots project that assists widows, orphans and others living in a very poverty stricken urban township called Ng’ombe. They have a free school, serve lunch to 500 children a day and provide temporary housing to children in an emergency. The women welcomed us with songs and ululating, a most African form of greeting that always makes me weep… while smiling broadly at the same time.

A major way they raise funds – earnings for the women, as well as some operating funds for the center – is crocheting bags out of plastic bags. I had no idea that plastic bags came in so many bright colors. (Un)fortunately, there is an unending supply of materials for the widows, as the bags are ubiquitous litter all over southern Africa (they used to call them the South African national flower because, until they were banned, they were everywhere along the side of the roads.)

We were moved by the stories the women told about losing a husband and/or children to AIDS, being ostracized by their families and friends and losing all income until finding a non-judgmental and welcoming place. One woman said that when she first came to Chikumbuso, she was so thin from her illness that “water stood on her neck.”

Of course, they sang and danced for us. There is nothing like the sound of African women’s voices in harmony to perk up your spirits, as it seems to do theirs as well. (I will never forget an Earthwatch project years ago in Zimbabwe when all our young female translators would just burst into seemingly spontaneous and always harmonious song every day on the bus after our work was done. I wondered – as I do to this day – if there is An African Singing Gene. I suppose not; it’s probably just the importance of music in so many of the African cultures. But even if MY culture was more musical, my VOICE would not be so inclined!)

Another way to perk up is to pump water the way the children do, by riding round and round on a “carousel” which activates the pump to get water from the borehole; several in our group
unleashed “their inner children” and got in on the fun.

Single mothers at Chikumbuso do sewing projects to compliment the bags that the widows crochet. I saw what I thought was a beautiful antique Singer Flying Dove treadle machine that they use; I loved the logo and colors and took a photo. Then I got closer and saw the stamp: made in the People’s Republic of China.

I guess that the vintage Singer machines aren’t quite that old (I will refrain from making any comments about the increasingly ubiquitous Chinese presence in Africa; that may be for another day) (especially since we had a wonderful young Chinese college student named Lin in our Africa Rides group)

That first night was our welcome dinner, at the lovely home of the man, Dave, who is the Head of World Bicycle Relief Africa (recently relocated to Cape Town from Lusaka). It reminded me of why my friend Liz loves living in southern Africa— the gardens and outdoor spaces are just beautiful. It was “winter” when I was there but there were still lovely trees and flowers in bloom and although evenings got chilly, the days were brilliantly sunny with clear blue skies and African Warmth (I call it San Diego weather.)

After drinks and dinner outside, we were treated to a performance by a wonderful young Zambian dance troupe: singing traditional songs and performing traditional dances, they welcomed us and got us all up on our feet dancing too! (These are two of the professional dancers, not us mzungu – look it up – rookies)

What a wonderful way to end our first full day; it was an exciting, “team building” effort and it established the dynamics of the group early-on: EVERYONE seemed game to try anything. Lots of laughter in the bus on the way back to the hotel!

Day 3:
The REAL beginning! After breakfast, we went to the offices of World Bicycle Relief and the Buffalo Bikes assembly plant. First we learned about the history of the organization, the mission and the various components. They not only place bicycles with school children (BEEP: Bicycle Education Empowerment Program) in conjunction with the Zambian Ministry of Education. They also give bicycles to HIV/AIDS caregivers in rural areas to better serve their clients.

And the final leg is a program to sell bicycles to small business entrepreneurs (dairy farmers, etc.) to expand their production and increase their incomes. What an impressive operation it was! Everything is neat and clean and so well organized. Each one of the 20 assemblers has a specialty and it is all so smooth running, with a sense of calm to the whole operation. After unpacking the boxes, the parts get distributed to their individual stations. They have specially designed and made racks on which to hang the partially assembled bikes.

Favorite job was “spoking,” one which requires way more patience than I would ever have.

After our tour we went back to World Bicycle Relief House for an authentic Zambian lunch. That was a real treat to try all the traditional foods although I must confess I will never develop much of a taste for the variably named sadza (Zimbabwe), mealie pap (South Africa), ugali (Kenya), nshime (Zambia). I always tell people it’s kind of like polenta (but not really) because it’s mostly cornmeal. It is starchy but with very little nutritional value; it works best as a “carrier” for meat and veg and sauces.

And the minuscule kapenta fish (aka Tanganyika sardine) is not a favorite of mine either. But it was great to try everything once and I so appreciated the effort of the organizers to expose us to much Zambain culture as possible in our short stay.

And then… drumroll please… WE ASSEMBLED OUR VERY OWN BUFFALO BICYCLES!

Each of us had our own official BB assembler, surely each the most patient of men. We were not allowed to have them put the bike together for us; their job was to tell us what to do and be sure we did it right (just remember: tighty righty, lefty loosey). My William was a saint; between not being able to sit on the ground well nor bend as well as I would like, it was a bit of an awkward undertaking.

But he always smiled and was so helpful (and, full disclosure, he DID put on two of the many bolts for me when I couldn’t seem to get the hang of a couple of them). And I did it!

When the bike was finally completed, there were two exciting final steps: THE BELL and our very own name plate on the back!

Once we were all finished, we proudly posed with our bright shiny bikes and our assemblers and then said good bye to the bikes, as they were carefully loaded into the truck to be taken to the next day’s destination, to visit the AIDS/HIV caregivers.

Then we reverted to being tourists as we hung around the hotel pool with a Mosi beer. Later, over a delicious dinner at the most popular restaurant in Lusaka, we started to get to know each other. It is a really great and diverse group! I couldn’t wait to get started tomorrow!

Day 4:
The Day on which we meet the AIDS/HIV caregivers and observe firsthand how the bicycles facilitate their most important work! We took the bus from Lusaka to Mwanje Zone of Chibombo District, about a 2 hour ride. We first met with a group of caregivers for an overview/discussion of what it means to be a caregiver; they are called the Community Care Coalition (although the gentleman who briefed us made “coalition” sound like collision. I am NOT making fun of him. These people in relatively remote areas speak English quite well and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t communicate in their language at all.)

They work with HIV patients and Orphans and Vulnerable Children. The sickest clients are visited twice a week but visits decrease to once a month as the health of their patients improve. The caregivers help with health needs (medication compliance, etc.) which then progresses to education for the healthier clients.

Many of the former clients have become healthy enough that they are now caregivers themselves. It is a quite an inspiring program. None of the caregivers are medical professionals; they just volunteer their time to help out. The donation of the bicycles has enabled them, to visit more clients more frequently,

Our group introduced ourselves individually and said where we were from and what we did. Hearty applause after each introduction (a very lengthy, but important , process) We were asked to give some “words of encouragement” to the caregivers.

The words were all lovely but Paul’s moved me to tears; I can’t remember exactly what he said but he ended by saying “we love you.” And we did. I told Paul that he got the award for making me cry for the first time on the trip, anticipating that there will be many more tears shed, at least by me.

Then we “hopped” on our bikes. My arthritic hips don’t “hop” so well so I had to tilt the bicycle at an angle to try to climb over. This was NOT easy and was MOST ungraceful. Not having ridden in over 10 years, I asked Tim to hold my bike and to give me a little push to start, much like a Daddy would do when teaching his child to ride.

But it worked – and off I went. I did pretty well, except on the soft sand, but I didn’t fall off. Hooray. The notes say that we rode approximately 8 kilometers in total (that’s about 5 miles). The caregiver showed us his homestead.

One thing I loved was that the children’s quarters had a narrower entrance than the adult buildings. (This seems like kind of a nice idea for the teens to keep mom and dad out of your room!). At the end, we all sat down and Lameck asked me to award the gift (this was a surprise to me but was done every day thereafter, with all of us participants taking a turn).

The family we visited got a giant bag full of basic supplies. And I had to hand them out one at a time, each time saying what it was e.g., sugar, rice, cooking oil, matches, candle and the only one I didn’t readily understand: Vaseline (for dry skin).

We all had a laugh with the matches because Andrew had earlier told Lameck that his family had brought matchbox cars from the USA to give to the children; Lameck hadn’t heard of these before and thought Andrew was going to give the children matches and, though polite, probably didn’t think that was a such a great idea! The family was most grateful but I seriously think they were MOST excited about getting to keep the large heavy duty reusable shopping bag that everything came in; it was a real prize!

Once finished, we got back on our bikes to ride to one of his clients for a visit and a talk. There was a donkey cart right of way issue which we negotiated; we were a pretty big group of single file cyclists after all.

The client was once very sick with HIV but now fit and farming again and well enough to be a caregiver himself! We sat on big bales of cotton that he was going to take for sale; it was really comfy and I think could make a most innovative and attractive couch! (I was embarrassed to admit that I had never before actually seen cotton growing nor baled.)

When we were finished, I was pretty pooped and decide to wimp out and go back in the “sag wagon”. A local lady asked if she could ride my bike back to where we had left the bus and that made us BOTH happy!

After a long bus ride back to the hotel, we relaxed and cleaned up. We had another wonderful dinner, this time at a restaurant owned by two South African women. It was technically closed so we had it all to ourselves, eating outside by the fire and recounting our favorite moments of the day. And looked forward to our big day tomorrow: The Bicycle Handover Ceremony at the school!

Day 5:
The BIG day: Kids and Bikes! Today was the BEEP Distribution Ceremony at Lishiko Primary School, Kafue District! After an early morning start and an hour drive, we arrived to a thunderous welcome by a huge assembly of students, their parents and others from the community. They were all sitting on “risers,” assembled from school desks. It was a very hot day and there was a “marquee’ (what they call tents in southern Africa) to shield us “honored guests,” which consisted of our group along with many local and regional dignitaries, from the sun.

We were greeted with ululating, songs and oh-so-many handshakes. And HUGE smiles all around. We took our seats and listed to speeches (of course) by chairmen and headmen and PTA members and the deputy Minister of Education and a host of others.

The preambles to the speeches (welcome to a whole list of people and thank you to another whole long list of names, etc) were in many cases longer than the remarks themselves. Our group all had to introduce our- selves individually, as we had done the day before, amidst clapping and ululating. Garrett, Caroline and I each had to talk about our personal fundraising efforts as we had raised the most money.

THAT was pretty impressive, even to me; these two teenagers had raised $30,000 between the two of them for pledges to their Ride for Wrigley efforts. And due to the generosity of my friends, I was up to around $10,000 myself; this translates to about 70 bicycles! Then the choir sang the beautiful Zambian national anthem and “my eyes leaked” for the first time that day.

Three girls performed a poem about being orphans and “God doesn’t mind” and another young girl delivered an eloquent thank you to all of us for the bikes we were giving the students of their school.

I was most impressed that she exhorted her schoolmates to “stay in school and avoid early marriage and unwanted pregnancies.”

After more speeches and a most appreciated delivery of ice cold water bottles to us came the highlight: the bicycle award ceremony.

A name was read and the girl and her parent or guardian came up. Then we individually awarded the bike to her, amidst handshakes and a photo and the girl rode off to loud cheering, clapping and ululating. It was very emotional. Some of the girls were very shy, while some had big smiles and some even rewarded us with a hug.

One girl’s mom walked on her one remaining leg with rough hewn crutches and she danced with great abandon and joy for this wonderful gift that her daughter had received!

By the time I awarded my bike, I was crying so hard that I could barely see. I hugged my girl fiercely, which is quite culturally inappropriate but I couldn’t help myself and she didn’t seem to really mind. It was really extraordinary, one of the best mornings of my life.

We witnessed the “service to own” contract signing; the girls and their parent or guardian must sign a contract pledging to stay in school, be on time, get good grades, etc for two years. The parent must also agree NOT to use the bicycle during school hours; priority goes to the child going to and from school. If they fulfill the terms, the bicycle will become the student’s to keep after that time.

I guess I need to interject some background here. Most (70%) of the bicycles go to girls, with fewer awarded to boys. This is not sexist; rather it reflects the reality that rural African girls tend to drop out of school more than do the boys. Education for girls has historically been less a priority in the rural areas. Also, girls do the bulk of the chores in the morning, walking great distances to fetch water before they even go to school.

Many times the school is also a great distance away and all that walking takes a toll on stamina and concentration. Further, there is great danger walking home after school, often in the dark. There is risk of wild animals as well as sexual assault. WBR has data to show that students who have received bicycles through BEEP show a 17% improvement in attendance. Further, they have demonstrated 22% improvement in academic performance!

Another impressive thing about the program is that local people receive training to become “field mechanics.” This not only provides employment but assures that the bicycles will be kept in working condition and not abandoned as so often happens to many “Western donations” of other types.

We personally awarded the first 82 bikes this day and a total of 200 will be given to this school! It was a most exciting time morning!

After a tour of the overcrowded school (665 students and nine teachers!), we got on our bikes and rode with one of the students (15 year old Ethel, who had just received her bike this day) to her home. Her home is nearly 6 kilometers from school. I was doing fine until The Steep Rocky Hill. Almost everyone walked their bikes and I just gave up.

I was out of breath which became less surprising when I learned that the elevation was about 4000 feet. Pride be damned, I again took the “Sag Wagon;” I had good company as also in the wagon was the Deputy Minister of Education. We had a nice chat. He was most impressed to see the actual distance and conditions that a typical child had to endure before getting their bicycle.

Ethel lives with her aunt and uncle and their 2 children; her parents are “late” (those of you Mma. Ramotswe fans will know, that means “deceased.”) After introductions to the family, most of us grabbed water containers (we mzungus had smaller ones than the big one Ethel carried) to walk with Ethel to the water source, a small stream, to experience what she had to do every morning before school.

It was pretty far (to me) and very hilly. Ethel will be happy to be able to carry the water container on her new bike. Our youngest group member, Corinne, and Ethel walked together with their water buckets; it was lovely to see their immediate friendship.

We spent more time at Ethel’s home, seeing where she studied (they have a solar panel so she can read and do schoolwork at night) and a bit of the compound. Her uncle is quite a progressive small farmer. After awarding the gift bag to the family, we said our good byes and left. It was nearly 3 p.m. and we had not had lunch so everyone was really hungry but we didn’t want to eat in front of the family. So we ate when we got back to our bus.

When we got back to the school, we were told that they had expected us to have lunch them and they had prepared food for us. Our leader Dave apologized and said we had an engagement back in Lusaka so we must go back immediately. We all felt terrible; it was just a big miscommunication. Many handshakes and smiles later, we left at 4 p.m. We finally got back to our hotel after sunset, which we viewed from the bus, a lovely giant orange ball in the sky.

This was our night off from going out to dinner with the group. The Boys all went out together and many of the rest of us stayed in. I was happy just to shower and sit in my robe with room service dinner and a glass of wine, while reading my book. Gave up at 9 p.m. and went to bed. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting day… and a wonderful one, never to be forgotten.

Day 6:
Cows and Pigs! It was a very early morning because we had to be at the dairy cooperative when the farmers started arriving with their cans of milk. We drove an hour to Chongwe District where we visited the Palabana Milk Collection Center.

The goal of this morning was for us to see how Buffalo Bikes can change the lives of small businessmen, specifically dairy farmers. Farmers arrive (in their blue overalls and white “gumboots”), carrying cans of milk by hand, on a “Scotch cart” or on the back of a bicycle.

A big (40 liter) can holds about 10 cows’ output of milk. The cans are very heavy but can be strapped to the back carrier of the bike for easy On foot, or using a rickety bicycle (we called them BSO, “bicycle shaped objects, as distinguished from the heavier duty Buffalo Bikes), farmers only manage one delivery of 20 liters per day on average. With a Buffalo Bicycle, they make two trips in the morning with 40 liters each and another two trips in the afternoon. Essentially, have access to a Buffalo Bike quadruples the volume of milk they can sell, and thus, their income!

That means they can buy more cows and make more money and so it goes: a most simple equation! Most farmers milk their cows and deliver milk twice a day. They get a check monthly from the large dairy that runs the cooperative. We were shown how they test the milk to be sure that it is fresh and not watered down. Then we rode our bikes about 2 kilometers to farmer Ephraim’s farm to see his operation and have him explain the impact that his bike has had on his production. He is a fascinating, well educated man.

Not only does he keep cows, but also pigs and chickens; he grows some crops as well. He had 3 years of veterinary training and treats other people’s livestock; he gets paid when the farmer is satisfied with the treatment (I wonder if we could import that idea to the USA!) He told us of one of his most impressive cases. He did a post mortem on a dead cow and discovered a hugely swollen gall bladder, determined that it was caused by ticks, and gave a simple cure to the farmer’s remaining sick cows who were all “down.” They were back on their feet the next day!

Lemeck asked if Ephraim had any suggestions for improvements to the bike (the WBR mantra is “The answer is in the field”). He suggested a wider back carrier so that larger milk cans can be more stable in transport. With a twinkle in his eye, he also asked for one of the wonderful metal red water bottles that each of us Africa Rides participants had been given. Since we each had 2, I asked Dave if I could give one of mine to Ephraim; he said yes. So HERE is a most happy man:

After we said our goodbyes to Ephraim and his family, we cycled back to “Chonwge Town” to visit a most impressive 26 year old entrepreneur named Albert, the first Authorized Dealer for Buffalo Bikes and spare parts. Someone aptly dubbed him “The Warren Buffett of Chongwe.”

He has a small stall in the market, which was successful enough that he got another stall for his wife to sell general store items. He also showed us his other venture: a small building with 10 rooms that he rents to secondary school students. And it all started him being trained as a Field Mechanic for WBR in 2007.

After our visit with him, we turned over all our Africa Rides bikes to him, the ones we assembled ourselves and have ridden for the past three days. He is buying and reselling all of them, as “gently used.”

My tears welled up (again) as I said good bye to my bike and wondered who in Zambia would be riding the bike with my name on the back and how it might affect their life, their hopes, their dreams, their future. It’s kind of awe-inspiring to think that what the black dusty slightly-beat-up vehicle that was briefly my bright and shiny new bike might help someone achieve their goals.

Back to the hotel, we experienced our first big kerfuffle. Although we were scheduled to check out the next morning, ALL of our key cards had been de-activated as somehow they thought we were checking out today. AT least they didn’t toss our belongings into the hallway. So after a few anxious moments, we all were able to get back into our rooms.

One final Mosi around the pool for me and playtime with a pot of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies for the kids. I cleaned up for our final dinner and invited Marjie and Tim to my room to see the new art I had bought in Harare before we all met for Africa Rides. I decided to keep one piece for myself because it is a very happy looking group of bicycle riders; every time I see it, I will think of this wonderful trip!

I hate “lasts”: Our last bus ride to a last wonderful dinner at a restaurant called Plates. I sat between my two young gal pals Corinne (11) and Caroline (13) and we had a blast. They regaled me with stories of crazy teachers and librarians and bullies and miscellaneous school gossip, including hinjinks at the “non-peanut table” at their school.

Corinne asked the waiter if they had “plain noodles with butter” and he said no. I had a “Five Easy Pieces” moment and asked if he could give her plain pasta with some butter on the side; he said yes. (Her dad, Andrew, was MOST impressed with my mothering skills.) Sheila and Sue had somehow managed to order a sheet cake with a photo of Corinne on her bike for her birthday; it was delivered to the table with song and great fanfare. What a memorable way to spend one’s 12th birthday!

I hated for this trip to be over. Four months later, I still miss these two bright, engaged, sweet young ladies more than I can say. They (and their mom, dad and older brother) give me hope for the future of my country and the world; I seriously mean that. Though most of us stayed together for a couple more days, on safari, it still wasn’t the same. The real Africa Rides part of the trip is over now. And I will never ever forget it.

Postscript: The new fundraising effort for World Bicycle Relief is called “Mobilize Me” and features footage of our trip and “Our Ethel.”  You might be interested.

4 Comments

  1. Nancy – thank you so much for sharing this with us – what a worthy cause and what an adventure and inspiration for us all. I have yet to visit Africa – a trip to the north is on the cards soon for far more mundane purposes and I am sure it will be more like the Middle East than Africa “proper”.

    I am especially glad that you have found hope in your country and for the world , and this tale give me hope for mankind too.